Social Issues Spotlight: Digital inclusion

The COVID-19 lockdown has accelerated the role of digital across the UK. As it eases we are left with a potential ‘new normal’ in which digital technology underpins how we work, learn and engage with others more than ever before. For many this is useful innovation, but for the 11 million people in the UK who are digitally excluded in some way it may present significant barriers.

Groups likely to face digital exclusion include those on low incomes, older people and those with disabilities – all groups potentially impacted significantly by the pandemic, and likely to face further restrictions to returning to pre-lockdown life.

In recent years connectivity across the nation has increased with 90% of households now online; however, connectivity alone does not end digital exclusion. Here are five things that businesses need to know about the issue.


1. Digital inclusion is about both skills and will 

The 2019 Consumer Digital Index shows that 22% of UK adults do not have the basic digital skills to use the internet. Teaching these skills is important, but learning alone will not solve the problem. Over half of those who do not use the internet lack the motivation to get online. This is for a complex set of reasons, most commonly: a perception that the internet ‘isn’t for me’ and doesn’t bring personal benefit, that it’s complicated or costly to set up, and/or that it jeopardises privacy and security. Helping people to understand the value of investing time, effort and money in digital is as important as skills development.

“My 8-year-old great nephews seem to be born with it. They live in a foreign land for which I have no map, comprehending a different language which only they can speak.” ‘Grandma William’, Centre for Ageing Better.


2. Ending digital exclusion is vital to health and wellbeing

As part of the 2012 ‘Digital by Default’ strategy the NHS has become increasingly online, with services such as GP at hand. This means that those facing digital exclusion miss out on support, which in turn can lead to poorer health outcomes. As the groups who are most likely to be digitally excluded are also those who are most likely to benefit from public services, it is important that they can access them. Digital inclusion can also increase wellbeing and contribute to improved mental health. Leading inclusion charity, the Good Things Foundation, report that 95% of their digital skills programme participants have increased wellbeing after getting online.

“No one knows what it’s like to be a dementia carer until you live through it. It’s hard to put it into words. But […] finding the iPad gives me enjoyment every day and gives me back some ‘me time’.” Ken, 82, Good Things Foundation participant


3. Digital inclusion can make a difference to earnings for people on lower incomes

Currently most job roles in the UK are advertised online and, according to the government, 82% of these roles require digital skills to perform them. When we consider that low income workers and older people are two groups facing digital exclusion, and that these two groups are also most likely to lose pay as a result of the current pandemic, it is critical that they can access all opportunities. It is also estimated that the average wage premium associated with having digital skills is between 3% and 10% of annual earnings, so for many households an increase in skills in this area makes a significant difference to their financial situation. This need for digital skills for work is likely to accelerate even more with increased homeworking.


4.  Education and skills are increasingly dependent on digital

During lockdown schooling has moved largely online, but over a million children have not had adequate access to devices to partake in it. This is not just a lockdown problem as before the pandemic 12% of young people in the UK faced challenges completing their schoolwork due to a lack of digital devices at home.

Digital is also important to adult education. In the UK we have a skills gap, with the Local Government Association stating that there are 5.1 million low-skilled people competing for only 2 million low-skilled jobs, and a lack of qualified workers to fill high-skilled jobs. A solution to this is training, however options for delivering this rely more than ever on digital skills, meaning many people miss out.

“The current lockdown has turned technology into an educational necessity rather than a luxury.” Julian Drinkall, CEO, The Co-op Academy’s Trust


5. Digital inclusion is key to making sure all customers can access products and services

People without the digital skills they need to shop online face a “poverty premium”. According to recent government estimates, predominantly offline households spend an average of £560 more per year on shopping and utility bills, compared to families which use the internet to compare prices and access better deals. As low income families and people with disabilities (who already face higher outgoings) are more commonly offline, it is likely that those with the least to spend are losing out on significant savings which could better support their financial resilience.


As we gradually leave lockdown it is more important than ever that businesses have a continued focus on digital inclusion as they plan for the coming months. Here are some ways in which you can impact this issue. 

For your employees: 

  • Use the government digital skills framework to consider whether your workforce includes people who lack essential digital skills.
  • Offer further training to make sure all of your colleagues have full digital access. Good Things Foundation offer a range of online courses and resources which can be used as a starting point, including Learn my Way and Make it Click (which has specific support for homeworkers).
  • Nominate internal ‘digital champions’ who can help connect colleagues with resources and support internally. Digital Unite have a digital champions network which provides learning resources, practical tools and an online community.

For your customers: 

  • Assess if your products and services can be accessed and used by those who are offline, without it costing them more. One powerful way to do this is by engaging directly with those who are digitally excluded and the charities who support them, see our social insight overview for an example on how this can be done.
  • Offer additional support and alternative ways to engage for those people who may face barriers to digital routes. Charities such as Age UK and AbilityNet can provide specialist advice on key affected groups.
  • Signpost customers to online training centres where they can develop skills with a local organisation.

For your communities: 

  • Use the digital exclusion heat map to understand which communities are most affected and target support within your community programmes.
  • Draw on the digital skills of your workforce to help train other organisations and individuals, a great example of this is Barclays’ Digital Eagles.
  • Get involved with DevicesDotNow, an initiative set up during the Covid19 pandemic for businesses to donate connectivity devices to be used by digitally excluded households. Similarly, environmental charity Hubbub is working in partnership with O2 on ‘community calling’, where businesses can donate phones.
  • Support Get Online week in October, a national campaign where organisations can sign up to raise awareness of digital exclusion and hold an event.

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